Foxcatcher (2014)



Foxcatcher isn’t for everybody. Hell, it’s barely even for me. It creeps through its real-life chain of aggravating episodes with quiet resolution, almost never raising its voice, painting every place and person with measured, desaturated strokes, and when it moves in for the (figurative and literal) kill, it’s in a blunt, deliberately frustrating fashion. This is just the way things were, director Bennett Miller seems to be telling us; however much the film’s script may have deviated from the facts, Miller never disrespects their stranger-than-fiction edge in the name of Hollywoodness. If anything, he overplays the offputting and bizarre in his material, from Steve Carell’s slightly-too-uncanny demeanor in the skin of noted weirdo John Du Pont to the unabashed thematic fixation with America, America, America and her vices. Some things in Foxcatcher absolutely do not belong in the plain, messy, non-metaphoric realm of real life from where it was theoretically drawn. It’s a strange direction for a ripped-from-the-headlines movie to go in, this determination to fill every corner of the screen with waveringly visible subtext, but I respect Miller for trying it — after all, it just about worked. The movie it produced is an engrossing, commendably discomfiting slice of Greek tragedy, with just enough thesis-statement introspection to make it worth revisiting.

Yes, it’s boring. Its plot would have trouble piquing anyone’s interest, I suspect even Miller’s, were it not for its horrible, tabloid-fueling conclusion. There’s very little amusement to derive from the messed-up psychological match between an aimless freestyle wrestler and the stern, narcissistic billionaire who offers him the world, especially when both men are so painfully incapable of communicating their thoughts and emotions. A lot of the dialogue in Foxcatcher is found not in spoken words but in the sour, subtly volatile expressions of Carell and Channing Tatum, who give Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons a run for their money as the pair of male leads with the strangest, most captivating dynamic of 2014. (I’m tempted to say both this and Whiplash focus on mentor-pupil relationships, but that’s not true of Foxcatcher: Carell and the filmmakers go out of their way to show Du Pont is only a “coach” in his own head.) And yes, close-ups of faces aren’t particularly fun to watch for two hours. Personally, I think the word “boring” is an empty accusation in and of itself; it’s perfectly acceptable as a subjective reason to dislike a movie, but when it comes to film criticism, one must try to look past it. If this film were “boring” and offered nothing in lieu of entertainment, then yes, I would be the first to dismiss it. But a “boring” movie in the conventional, slow-moving, uneventful sense is not always the same as an uninteresting one (my favorite movie of 2012 was The Master, a film that got called boring so many times some doctors may have started prescribing it as insomnia treatment), and Foxcatcher is eminently interesting if you’re on board with its peculiar aesthetic.

First and foremost, of course, because Miller has the tact to find what’s intriguing in his true narrative, and to never lose focus on that. The murder at the center of the Foxcatcher furor may have been what drew the filmmakers to this story, but it turns out that it wasn’t a random act of violence: the possible “why”s found in the preceding years of desolation, uncertainty and ass-kissing at the training facility thus form the meat of the film. The notorious killing itself is not the gist of the story, but a result of it. When it happens in the movie, it feels almost like a non-sequitur. It isn’t, though; the subtle psychoanalisis leading to that moment is always on point — even if it’s sometimes too subtle for some tastes, if not outright vague. Is Du Pont sponsoring a wrestling team because he’s compelled to embody the great American values he keeps bringing up, or because he wants to impress his mother? Is he a normal person consumed by entitlement or does he have some sort of mental illness? Are Mark Schultz’s constant attempts to please him a reflex of deep-seated father issues, or just a childish response to his aid? Does Mark eventually want to leave Foxcatcher because he feels harassed by Du Pont or because he has had enough of freestyle wrestling? None of those questions have clear answers, and the movie allows for multiple readings, but the character work never rings a false note. In the end, any interpretations take us to the same conclusions regarding the film’s grander themes.

Admittedly, those conclusions aren’t exactly revolutionary: the United States are a country fueled by false ideology, ruled by petty magnates and tormented by unhealthy delusions of grandeur. Miller is more interested in showing the effects of those well-known national maladies on a personal level than in diagnosing new ones. This is a less profound study than the likes of The Social Network or The Master, then, but it’s still a fascinating snapshot in its own right, as rarely has a movie felt so disturbingly Eaglelandish. The simultaneously lifeless and excessive production design, the punctual and incisive appearance of handguns, the omnipresence of cameras and television footage as a repackaging of reality, everything on screen collaborates to create the aura of a revelatory American nightmare. Again, that’s an unexpectedly expressionistic vein for a true-crime flick, but again it is called for. How could it not with such an innately weird subject matter?

The same can be said about a lot of Foxcatcher, and the movie’s greatest merit lies in never going overboard with its larger-than-life stylistic choices. That balance is hard to pull off, so props to Bennett Miller for managing it. His Best Director win at Cannes seems fair enough on that front. For an example of that, take Carell’s performance. Considering his past work, surely the actor himself is more than capable of manifesting a wide range of emotions, with or without a truckload of prosthetic makeup covering his face (though it begs remembrance that the real Du Pont did have the static eyebrows and awkward facial tics that many found disconcerting in Carell’s characterization), so the almost imperturbable stillness of his countenance must have been a directorial choice. Watch videos of Du Pont giving interviews and you may find yourself wondering what’s the point; he was a creepy man for sure, but he seemed capable enough of expressing human emotion, at least in front of the cameras. In Foxcatcher, Du Pont remains austere even when he’s being filmed. We barely see him as a human being. Carell’s work impeccably captures the man at his least sociable, but never goes for more than that facet; even his complexities are contained within a constant coldness. Yet it works — not as a faithful reproduction of real life so much as a re-interpretation of Du Pont’s conduct that serves the film’s artistic intentions. This is not a man, this is a vampire. A billionaire, quixotic, extremely influential vampire. There must be others like him.

Self-effacingly venturous traits like that make Foxcatcher an astutely terrifying film, especially if you’re American and have to live with its insinuations. That it’s overall very successful at sustaining its hair-raising tone is a fortunate quality, too, because, putting aside its firm command of the basic elements of compelling fiction, this is a movie of multiple ambitions. It’s part character study, part social/cultural critique, part interpersonal drama, fluctuating between these three aptitudes almost experimentally. Miller and company always appear to know what they’re doing but sometimes they lead us to question what they’re doing it for — are they trying to conjure a meaningful fable of patriotic subversion? Are they mounting a showcase for the great trio of principal actors? Are they simply just trying to tell a story they thought was worth telling? The last hypothesis seems unlikely; as said before, there’s nothing starkly cinematic about the facts themselves, just the rather mundane saga of two very problematic men going head-to-head. If a movie was made out of this particular tale, it’s because somebody saw something worthy of attention beneath the surface, which brings me back to the possibility that Foxcatcher wants to be a capital-I Important movie. You know, about the perils of wealth and the psychology of combat sports and stuff like that.

If so, does it succeed? Partly; its ruminations are sometimes a little on-the-nose, and its concerns are never quite universal. As hard as everybody tries, this falls short of being a great film. Maybe it’s how opaque it is, maybe it’s the ambivalence of its driving purpose, maybe it’s the incomprehensibly shoddy makeup work done on Mark Ruffalo’s forehead. It’s not an easy movie to enjoy, respect or admire, not that it’s interested in being one. Just what it’s really interested in may be an even more absorbing question than the ones posed by the script, actually. Still, it’s very well-made, with scenes of reliable individual power and more than a few positively haunting moments. And as much as it may keep us guessing to the point of resisting analysis, it does leave at least three unequivocal legacies: first, it reminds the public of the huge talents of Tatum, Carell and Ruffalo, all three of whom have some trouble being taken seriously as actors. Second, it gives us a rare, attentive portrayal of an often-overlooked sport.

Third, and that’s what really justifies the movie’s existence regardless of quibbles, it’s an affecting, invaluable tribute to Dave Schultz, whose death exceeded any observations.